Chicago photographer waits for new assignment from God

So, who has been following the drama that unfolded early this month up in Chicago, where the professional photographers at The Chicago Sun-Times were hit by the roller coaster of digital change earlier this month? To make a long story short, in the age of smartphones and digital video, the management decided to lay off the entire photography staff, award winners and all. Who needs photos better than those that can be shot by reporters and bystanders?

Many people in Chicago continue to protest this.

When the whole thing started, a reader sent us a URL to a sad piece that explored the impact of this on one famous shutter star, a piece that put the spiritual angle right up front.

I saved the piece and then forgot about it. It's still an example of how a news team -- especially a niche news team like Poynter -- can try to let a person's voice speak to the heart of things. In the end, I thought the story fell one brave word short. Here's the lede:

John White’s 44-year career at The Chicago Sun-Times has been rooted in faith and professionalism. It’s a career he refers to as “an assignment from God.”

Earlier this week, that career came to an end on what some photographers have called the darkest day in Sun-Times photojournalism history. The paper announced ... that it had laid off its entire photojournalism staff and would rely on freelance photographers and reporters instead.

White -- who has seen the paper go through many owners and changes -- says he never imagined that his and his colleagues’ careers would end so abruptly. In a phone interview, the 1982 Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist and teacher recalled a day that he is still “trying to make sense of.”

“This is what I remember hearing: ‘As you know we are going forward into multimedia and video, and that is going to be our focus. So we are eliminating the photography department.’ Then they turned it over to HR,” recounted White, who had already been doing video at the paper.

The journalism details are all there, a blow-by-blow description of the digital logic of our day. The photo department included 28 full-time staffers.

Up next: Classes in iPhone photography basics. It's happened before and it will, sadly, happen again.

However, I kept waiting for the White's voice to return.

Finally, it did.

Now, tell me if there is any particular word -- yes, in paraphrase -- that doesn't quite right true here, if you know much about White. The person setting the scene is former Sun-Times managing editor Gregory Favre:

Favre compared the loss of a paper’s in-house staff to “cutting the eyes out of the body. ... John White was the eye that was always looking for the soul of Chicago.”

While several of the dismissed Sun-Times photographers gathered at the Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Michigan Avenue to console themselves, White hopped into his car and headed to the lake in dire need of meditation, recalling that he “just wanted to disappear and needed to be alone.” ...

White said he was most concerned about his colleagues -- the former students, young families and folks who came in while on medical leave. He also worries about readers, who will no longer be able to experience “the most important ingredient of communication and understanding” in quite the same way.

“Humanity is being robbed,” he said, “by people with money on their minds.”

While by the lake, White turned to a reading from Psalm 20:4: “May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.”

He reiterated: “My assignment comes from God.”

Now, picture White at that lakeshore.

Meditation? Or prayer?

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